Sad faces: clowns who perform in conflict zones stuck at home amid Covid

Soo Youn
·9 min read

If it wasn’t for the pandemic, Naomi Shafer would be working in the West Bank now. She and her fellow clowns would wake up at 7am, eat breakfast, then crowd themselves into a car. During a two-hour drive into East Jerusalem, they might scramble into costumes and makeup.

By 10am the posse would perform the first of two shows for displaced Palestinian children, then have lunch with students or tea with the teachers. In the afternoon, another school, another show, another visit.

Back at their home base in Bethlehem they would play soccer with neighborhood kids. After dinner, they’d rinse costumes, mend props and debrief. Then pack it up for the next day.

But last March, coronavirus grounded Clowns Without Borders.

For the 15 CWB chapters around the world who dispatch laughter into trauma, this should have been their Olympics. They are psychological first responders – professional clowns, jugglers, mimes and circus artists who perform in refugee camps, conflict zones and communities in crisis. Yet, the cruelty of an airborne virus means they cannot send in the clowns.

At the start of 2020, Shafer had organized six trips – to Colombia, Lebanon, Palestine, Russia, Brazil, and Spain. The day before their flight to Bogota last March, they made the heartbreaking decision to cancel the mission to bring fun to Venezuelan refugees. They’ve been stuck at home since.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, I was like, it’s impossible. We can’t clown online. Then I thought about it. We’ve performed in fields, we’ve performed under a tree, we’ve performed in parking spaces, we’ve made rubber rafts on the beaches of Lesbos into a stage. Why can’t we do it on Zoom? For us, the show is always in an improbable space,” Shafer, the 31-year old executive director of Clowns Without Borders USA who is herself a clown, told the Guardian.

Shafer has since relocated from New York City to Bozeman, Montana, and, as much as she can, adapted operations online, holding clowning workshops over Zoom.

There was some upside. Artists from Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria could train in the same room online, a gathering that geopolitical tensions and travel restrictions would never allow.

“Zoom has no checkpoints, no visas, no border crossings,” Shafer wrote in a blogpost.

In March, this year’s annual benefit took place online instead of a theater in Portland, Oregon.

A performer wriggled out of a full body balloon against a Starlight Express-esque background. A red-nosed mime tried to fold a fitted sheet. In his Brooklyn apartment, Omari Soulfinger danced to James Brown slipping on a floor strewn with banana peels.

Shafer has updated her clown database, organizing more than 100 artists by skill, language ability and geography. They’re working on a digital mine education campaign with Mines Advisory Group in Somalia, Vietnam, Lebanon, and Iraq.

But for other social clown groups, technology can’t fill all the gaps.

Ilana Levy, of CaliClown, the group that would have toured Venezuelan refugee camps with CWB last spring, also works as a hospital clown. The problems that plague the hospitals in her hometown of Cali, Colombia, also affect refugee camps – poverty, lack of resources, no wifi.

“Nobody wants to use their data for a clown,” she said.

Last April in Beirut, Sabine Choucair hosted weekly laughter workshops online. Her group, Clown Me In, filmed minute-long games for kids without wifi to play with siblings, parents, or, lacking anyone, in front of a mirror. They distributed the videos to school principals and refugee camps via WhatsApp.

Then came the 4 August explosion, killing at least 215 people, injuring nearly 8,000 and decimating the homes of 300,000.

“Many of the clowns also had their houses falling on them,” Choucair said.

After a week, they remembered who they were. Double-masked, they went out on a 10-day street clowning tour amid the destruction.

In one audience, a woman told the group her daughter hadn’t spoken for a month.

“After the show she went back home, and she told her father about the show. It was the first time she spoke after the explosion,” Choucair said. “This is what clowns do.”

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Clowns Without Borders was born out of a correspondence between children in Barcelona and their pen pals at refugee camps in Croatia, who wrote that they missed laughter. The Catalonian children raised funds to send a famous clown, Tortell Poltrona, to the camps in 1993.

Poltrana attracted more than 4,000 children, revealing the need for humor. He founded Clowns Without Borders that year. It spread to France and Sweden.

Moshe Cohen, an American who had clowned in Guatemalan refugee camps in Chiapas, Mexico and South African township schools joined Clowns Sans Frontieres in 1994 on a Croatia tour. The following year, he started Clowns Without Borders USA.

In 2015, halfway through her MBA, Shafer joined CWB.

She started clowning as a child in Vermont. She had seen Stephen Stearns, a mime and half of the Clown Jewels of Vermont duo, whistle for an imaginary dog at a children’s theater performance.

“It was this moment of an adult inviting me into his imagination. An adult playing make-believe, very, very seriously,” Shafer said.

She started lessons with Stearns. For a 10-year old with a speech impediment who wanted to perform, it was perfect.

“I wanted to be so loud, but I didn’t want to speak and, and in mime, I could do that,” she said. “Like so many arts or sports experiences are for kids, it was the place where I came into myself.”

In college, she majored in sociology. In 2015, Stearns invited her to translate and teach clowning in Beslan, Russia, at the site of a 2004 school siege in which terrorists took 1,000 hostages, killing more than 300. Half were children. In that dark shadow, epiphany struck.

“This is what I need to be doing – finding play in this space that’s defined by tragedy,” Shafer said.

Afterwards, while halfheartedly applying for business jobs, she typed “clown” into a job search engine. CWB was looking for someone to help with financial administration. Everything slipped into place.

Sending clowns into humanitarian crises may sound absurd. In teeming refugee camps, where people lack adequate shelter, food, and healthcare, what salve does a painted human juggling provide?

“When we think about aid, we create these false hierarchies,” Shafer said. “Within the comfort of my home, within all of the privilege I have, I’m having a hard time. Being stuck is hard. Having a roof over your head, it’s not enough. You need a lot more. Everybody has the right to play. Everybody has the right to joy, and that doesn’t mean only after other needs are met.”

She knows how ridiculous it can sound to face the most inhumane conditions with a ukulele or a red nose.

In the Balkans, for example, some of the kids in refugee camps told the clowns they understood play: “We play the game every night, where all at once we run to try to climb the border fences. Most of us get pulled off and beaten. Some people get through and we call that the game.”

“It’s really hard to be in that situation and be like, ‘Great. What I can offer is that I can make a quarter appear from behind your ear,” Shafer said. “The hardest thing that the clowns experience is that moment of doubt. Not, am I funny? But, is it enough to be funny?”

Yet she’s seen it work time and time again, the alchemy of meeting tragedy with farce.

Clowns are silly, but “the audience has the opportunity to laugh because the clown is feeling or sharing vulnerability and sadness,” she said. “The basis of comedy is that the clown is left out, the clown is frustrated, the clown is stuck. It’s funny to watch an adult human get stuck because she’s stepped in an imaginary puddle. But part of what’s funny is watching someone else struggle.”

The clowns take the audience, often stuck indefinitely in a place that is not their home, on an emotional journey.

“After the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the clowns played with owning that experience of being stuck and being collapsed, by getting stuck in an umbrella. That’s where this magic and this transformation happens, making a metaphor and a joke of these big experiences,” she said.

•••

Art has long explored the tension between suffering and silliness. Think of the appalling unreleased Jerry Lewis film The Day the Clown Cried about a clown in Auschwitz, or Oscar winner Life Is Beautiful about a father who pretends being in a concentration camp is a game to shield his son from reality.

The history of clowns as therapy dates back to Hippocrates, when doctors believed humor improved health. In the 1800s, the Fratellini Brothers, a clown trio, worked in French hospitals. In 1971, doctor and clown Patch Adams, (played by Robin Williams in a biopic), founded the Gesundheit! Institute, a healthcare non-profit that proselytizes the healing abilities of laughter, joy and creativity.

In the past 10 years, medical clowning has expanded. The pediatric surgery unit at Columbia Presbyterian boasts about its Big Apple Circus Clown Program. A growing body of research has explored the connection between clowns and decreases in anxiety and physical pain for pediatric and adult patients to a means of cost-cutting in healthcare.

In April, Shafer sounded more excited than she had a month earlier. Freshly vaccinated, she’s working on getting the other clowns inoculated and scouting a trip to the Mexican border, where migrant children are being held in camps.

I mentioned CWB’s plans to Brooke Binkowski, a reporter who previously worked on the border, assuming she’d make a joke. Instead she said, “I think the kids in the shelters would really appreciate fun clown shows.”

Shafer still has to figure out how to avoid exposing vulnerable kids to greater risk, but she sounds excited to go.

“It’s really important to acknowledge grief and also have relief from it. And as bizarre as it sounds, I think a clown show can do both.”